When Hungarian journalist Attila Kálnoki Kis was vacationing in his grandparents’ hometown in Romania, he happened to be eating lunch a table away from Marta Karolyi, once the national team leader for the U.S. woman’s program who retired in 2016 and then left the country following accusations of cruel and sadistic training methods in the wake of the Larry Nassar allegations.
The journalist decided to approach Karolyi at the restaurant, and found that the women she was sitting with knew him and generations of his family, such is life in a small Transylvanian town, the same town where Karolyi grew up. Though Karolyi hasn’t spoken to the press at length in years, largely at the urging of her attorneys due to a pending lawsuit against her and husband Bela, she agreed to speak to this Hungarian journalist if and only if he would agree to share her whole story, which she said would explain everything about her coaching methods, and why they are not cruel, but rather necessary for creating champions.
He agreed, and the next day, sat down with Karolyi in her living room. She shared details of her childhood, meeting Bela, how the two designed their training system and quickly took over the direction of the Romanian gymnastics program, the decision to defect to the United States, and making their winning system work in a country so socioculturally and politically different. Only then did she discuss her feelings about Nassar, her involvement, and why she believes she and Bela bear no responsibility.
It’s a tough read at times, with lots of justifications and shifting the blame onto others, including personal coaches, and she also spouts the old “of course an athlete who isn’t good enough to succeed is going to blame me” trope. But I wanted to bring it to you in full, since it’s the only real insight we’ve seen from the Karolyis since they left the United States, so I translated it in full below from its original Hungarian, which is available on 24.hu: https://24.hu/sport/2021/09/26/karolyi-marta-karolyi-bela-larry-nassar-amerikai-tornaszbotrany/
Note that everything below is in Marta’s own words, and I (obviously) do not agree with most, if not everything, she says. I find it especially ironic that she says Nadia Comaneci and Teodora Ungureanu were not “forcibly taken” from the Karolyis by the Romanian dictatorship following the 1976 Olympic Games, but “the party created a situation where they had no choice but to leave,” yet fails to recognize her own responsibility in creating a fear-based environment at the Karolyi Ranch that gave gymnasts no choice but to suffer in silence.
Marta Karolyi: The Karolyi Ranch Was Not Dracula’s Cellar Prison
Both HBO (At the Heart of Gold) and Netflix (Athlete A) produced documentaries about the scandal that shook the world: Larry Nassar, an American women’s gymnastics doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting 265 girls and women. The confessions revealed that the sexual predator had committed some of his crimes at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Not only did this cast a dark shadow over the world’s most successful Transylvanian coaching couple, but they also have damages lawsuits still pending against them. [After not speaking with any journalists since Rio 2016], Bela Karolyi’s wife made an exception with 24.hu, where she recounted her life from Odorheiu Secuiesc to Onesti, then through Deva to Texas, from six-year-old Nadia Comaneci to Mary Lou Retton and Simone Biles to Larry Nassar.
August 27, 2021. Odorheiu Secuiesc. Gondűző Restaurant. While we are furiously spooning our peasant chops, at the table next to us, three older ladies are speaking with delicious Szekler dialects, laughing. With one of them, you can hear a bit of an American accent as she talks, radiating amazing momentum and vitality, sometimes even weaving an English word into her tale. My ears. My mother mentioned the other day that the Karolyi couple (Bela Karolyi and Marta Karolyi) moved home. My wife, who sees me as my ear focuses on this other table, exclaims, “I think it is Marta Karolyi. You are a journalist!”
Well, yes. A journalist is a journalist even if they are just resting at the location of their childhood’s most beautiful summers, their grandparents’ hometown. I put down the spoon, turn around, get up, step over. The lady sitting opposite me has been poisoning me with a sharp look for some time, exclaiming as I approach: “I know you! I am Agi Bodo, you are the son of Zsazsa! You know Gyöngyi, the son of our classmate, Eva Kabdebo’s twin brother,” whom the world world, including Marta, knows. “Yes, I am,” I say with a smile, and while flying back about sixty years on the family threads connecting the Kalnoki and Kabdebo families, Marta also turns around. I no longer need to introduce myself, so I say:
“I work as a sports journalist in Hungary. You retired from the U.S. gymnastics team in 2016, and neither you nor your husband have given an interview since.”
“Yes, yes. We gave a few more after the Rio Olympics. Not since. Our lawyer asked us to not speak if we didn’t have to.”
“Because of the Larry Nassar case, the scandal that shook American gymnastics?”
“This case is terribly unpleasant. There are girls who are suing us for a million dollars, too. Our lawyer says we don’t have to be afraid, we’ll win, but it has left Bela terribly worn out for the past five years. That’s typical of him, if he knows he’s right, he goes against the wall. Over the decades, while working in the background, he was outwardly outspoken about everything. Throughout his career, he has been immeasurably frustrated by injustice. This once powerful, strong man is now just a shadow of himself. But let everyone say what they want. I know we didn’t do anything wrong. In the end, the truth will be revealed anyway.”
“Would you tell us your side: what, why, how did it happen?”
“It is not enough to know only the last 25 years, the period since USA Gymnastics hired Larry Nassar to understand and get to know him. You also need to know our story, where we started, how we got from one to two, why we did it, our creed about sports, competition. If you’re willing to listen, I’ll make an exception.”
The next afternoon, the day before Marta’s 79th birthday, we arranged the meeting in their American-style house on the left side of the main road leading to the Sheikh Bath. After I arrived, she sat me in her living room and then started telling stories.”
“Is my daughter getting married to a sneaker?!”
Odorheiu Secuiesc is my hometown. It says all about our relationships. Even though I have traveled all over the world, 40 years ago, fleeing the Ceausescu dictatorship, my husband and I realized the American dream in vain, the indelible memories of my childhood have bound me here. It all started here, and although we kept a small estate from the Karolyi ranch sold this summer, it will probably end here as well.
My grandfather was a kulak [peasant], my father started out as an accountant and retired as a deputy bank manager, my mother worked as a piano teacher. My father was more relaxed, but my mother was extremely strict. As a hard-working, receptive child, every blessed day I walked from the beautiful large family house on Arpad Street to the Catholic grammar school founded and built by the Hungarians, now named after Aron Tamasi. I was terrified when I brought a 9 home from school [this is in reference to grades; a 10 is the best grade in the Romanian school system]. My mother always said, “Don’t get a 9 if you’re capable of 10! Always give your best!” I probably inherited my perfectionism from her. I would also like to thank my mother for her rigor from the perspective of looking back 70 years.
In the afternoon, under the guidance of physical education coach Adam Attila, together with my classmates – including Eva Kabdebo and Agi Bodo – I got acquainted with the basics of gymnastics. In the fifties, the modern equipment was not yet available. We practiced on good, hard ground. Not at a high level – at the time, women’s gymnastics was more about performing than acrobatic elements. We performed at ceremonies, and competed in county and provincial competitions.
As I graduated from high school, I was admitted to the University of Cluj-Napoca as a French-Romanian student. I achieved a great result, yet I did not get a seat because the children of the party members and the working class were preferred. The Teacher Training College in Cluj-Napoca also opened that year. There was a place in Russian-Romanian, but I decided to go into physical education instead. The family did not like the idea. My mother wanted me to be a doctor.
I did particularly poorly in athletics, but I compensated for this in gymnastics, so I was admitted here without further ado. I met Bela here. We were both born in 1942, me on August 29, and he two weeks later, on September 13. The strong guy was mostly considered a hammer thrower, but he tried everything, even boxing. Yet he was admitted to the fine arts major. From there, he asked if he could transfer to the same physical education program I attended.
Student love has bound us together for life. In 1963, as soon as we graduated from university, we got married. When I announced this at home, my mother said: “My daughter is getting married to a sneaker?!”
I was a better student than Bela, so I could have chosen a teacher position sooner and at a much higher level, but I went to the Zsil Valley, in Vulcan, afterwards. To put it mildly, it is not the center of the world. On the other hand, the town was inhabited by straight, hard-working, strong, mostly Romanian and many Szekler mining families.
In addition to teaching, we further trained at the University of Physical Education in Bucharest. I became a gymnastics coach, and Bela specialized in athletics and handball. At first he worked in these two sports, but he fell in love with gymnastics. From the very beginning, it helped us to create a small gymnastics team in Vulcan, which we took to the national championships after just a short time.
Bela found out that, unlike other sports, we should not start with the selection of top athletes, but with the children aged 5-7. At a younger age, there is no sense of fear. Kids take everything as a game. They typically need less force to move their tiny, light bodies, and it’s easier to perform acrobatic elements. They adapt to work, but because regeneration is much faster at this age, their bodies can also relax quickly.
Bela’s inalienable idea and merit is that he invented this completely unusual, novel selection method, which we used throughout our career.
“In gymnastics, you practice in a strict and humble way to achieve perfection”
Coming from Vulcan, we drew attention to ourselves by saying that our little disciples, though younger, were bolder and more skillful than average. After our first national successes, they were transferred to the Petrozavodsk sports school, and then in the summer of 1968, we moved our headquarters to Onesti. That year, the Romanian gymnastics training center was established, where we got a job. We selected the tiny Teodora Ungureanu and Nadia Comaneci for our first group of athletes. Kati Szabo also came to us at the age of five. Her father brought her and her sister with a bag of potatoes. He said:
“Listen, Bela, we live in the middle of Szekerland, in Zagon. The girls’ physical education teacher said they were talented, and needed to find a better trainer, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get anywhere.”
We all lived there in Onesti. The children spent 350 days in the boarding school. We divided them into two groups, which were taken in pairs by me and Bela. Throughout my career, I supervised beam and floor, and Bela, vault and uneven bars. The reason is simple: men have never stood on a beam, so they don’t really know about it, and more women are also attracted to choreography and dance.
We always looked up to the Soviet gymnasts, as they dominated the sport one hundred percent. How could they be defeated? With better material, more acrobatic elements, and more precise gymnastics. Bela approached everything through strength and dynamics. It is also to his credit that we have focused even more on the development of physical strength, speed, and accuracy, because the execution of acrobatic elements in gymnastics ultimately depends on speed and strength. Therefore, the selected little girls took part in a strong conditioning program in Onesti, and later in Deva. During the workouts, they did body weight exercises for a half hour, they ran a lot, and only then did the apparatuses come. In addition to the early selection, this kind of change in training methods was another of Bela’s innovations.
In addition to my two apparatuses, I was responsible for designing the annual training period that regulates our complex training method. For almost five decades, we have been applying my training methodology, which includes macro- and microcycles developed with knowledge of the dates of competitions and training camps.
We made it with this. For months, we just practiced in a disciplined, strict, humble way so that the kids could present their routines perfectly afterwards.
In the first phase, in addition to honing the basic technique, the emphasis was on physical preparation. In the second, we reduced force and dynamics development and practiced more and more technical elements. In the third, we started to connect the individual elements, which had been done separately until then, to form a routine, while in the final phase, before the competition, we focused only on the routines. In the end, you reach maximum form when the biggest meet comes.
Before the 1976 Olympics, we had to travel to the central training camp in Bucharest. It was here that they decided which six gymnasts would be included on the Olympic team. At noon on a Sunday, Ilie Verdet, the First Vice President of the Counsel of Ministers who led the selection committee, appeared. We were just training in the gym. Verdet looked around and asked, “Where are the other gymnasts?” Bela shrugged, then replied, “Maybe they’re resting.” “While you train on Sundays,” Verdet noted.
Before this, we knew that two coaches from Bucharest would lead the team, Bela would only travel to Montreal as an assistant coach, and I wasn’t even part of the conversation. The next day the announcement came: Bela Karolyi and Marta Karolyi would be the head coaches at the Olympics. They quickly got a uniform for me, and expedited a passport as well.
We achieved overwhelming success in Montreal. Nadia Comaneci won three gold medals, received the first Perfect 10 in gymnastics history, and overthrew the Russian gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva. All this at the age of 14. Comaneci won the all-around, bars, and beam titles and the bronze on floor, Teodora Ungureanu won silver on bars and bronze on beam, and the Romanian team finished second. In addition to Nadia and Teodora, we also trained team members Georgeta Gabor, Mariana Constantin, and the reserve Lilita Milea for years.
“The room key for the New York hotel is still on the wall of our bedroom to this day”
The huge success put gymnastics at the center of politics, and Nicolae Ceausescu fell in love with the sport. The tiny Nadia, just 15, was treated like a miracle girl. Everyone wanted to see her. As the treasure of the Romanian nation, she was brought to state events, before kings, heads of state. She dealt with all of this, not just training.
Ilie Verdet, who believed in us, was replaced by Ceausescu, who was replaced by his son, Nicu, as the party delegate at the head of the sport. Because every sport needed a trusted party leader. Ceausescu has always disliked Hungarians. He came to us and asked more than once, “can’t we find better coaches than these bozgors?” [Romanians call Hungarians Bozgor.]
However, Nicu, who did not like Bela at all, liked Nadia, and grew to be involved in the sport even more. My husband, as a Szekler man with a straight backbone, said: “We are the professionals. We know what to do, why we do it. The party should not be involved in training and competitions.” He raised his voice more than once for Nadia’s sake, which is why the main crack in the relationship with the party formed.
Nadia and Teodora were quickly taken away from us by the party. They paid their parents significant money, and gave them a villa in Bucharest in exchange for the two girls, who were still young. Even if they were not forcibly torn from us, they created a situation where they had no choice. Meanwhile, Deva, a Hungarian city in the Romanian territory of Onesti, offered to build us the gym we wanted, so we relocated our center there. The competitions came, our gymnasts performed beautifully, and Nadia’s performance dropped significantly. Everyone told us that the Olympic champion, the best in the world, no longer needed to train as hard as we required, but being the best doesn’t work on its own.
Nadia realized that, too. Although a little too late, but just in time. Shortly before the Moscow Olympics, she came to Deva and returned to us. She worked even harder than before. Many have criticized us for not always talking to our students in a nice tone. But I always said sports are an area where if you want to be the best in the world, an Olympic champion, you have to work the hardest, you have to endure the most. There is no other panacea, no other way. Absolutely not as a gymnast.
We also received word that our gymnasts are overly disciplined, not smiling at competitions. But in the gym, discipline is the lord. On vault and floor, gymnasts fall from a height of two meters while their bodies spin, twist. On a beam, one hundred and twenty centimeters high, they step on a ten-centimeter-wide piece of wood. If they don’t concentrate, if they are not in control of their body, if they are two centimeters off, it results in a nasty injury. In addition to training athletes, it is the coach’s responsibility to maintain health.
That’s why we taught our gymnasts that before they get to the apparatus, the outside world disappears. Maximum concentration. They had to run every skill of their routines in their brains. It was the tight focus practiced in the workouts, fixed on their routines, that was reflected on the faces of our students.
The result: Nadia won on beam and floor in Moscow. Although she missed a Perfect 10, people still remember her as the little girl who presented the most perfect routine of all time.
After we got home, a Hungarian judge, whose husband held a high position in the party, withdrew. “Listen, Marta, my husband heard with his own ears Nicu growling that the President’s father had instructed him to get rid of the scum.” The infamous Romanian secret service were sent to watch over us. While celebrating our successes, constantly bombarded with foreign offers, Securitate people followed us everywhere.
After the Olympic break, the girls were just starting basic preparations when they were unexpectedly sent on an American tour. The Romanian state contracted them for many thousands of dollars to perform in a different city every day for a month like carnival stuntmen. Morning travel, evening show. We had a hard time, because according to the training period, we should have been doing something else entirely. We performed the last show in New York. We introduced the show, and then after going back to the hotel, we waited for all of the secret service to fall asleep and stepped out at four in the morning. We took our suitcase and shoved a few hundred dollars in our pockets and went to my aunt’s little apartment in Manhattan. To this day, the hotel room key is kept on the wall of our bedroom.
No one knew about it. Neither did our parents. We suddenly decided to do it on the basis of “who knows when there will be another opportunity?” All this at the age of 39, and we knew our seven-year-old daughter Andrea would be a prisoner of the Ceausescu regime.
Due to the many trips and training camps, she was used to being left alone for months – either our parents or an older aunt took care of her. At this time, she stayed at home in our apartment in Deva with the latter. I knew she was in good hands, safe. And while the Securitate visited them frequently, questioned them, we immediately started working on family reunification.
A member of the congressional committee acted on our case where it was decided which type of assistance the U.S. should provide to which country. They asked everyone in return for something, the most basic respect for human rights. By this time, the stability of socialist Romania had faltered, becoming dependent on American and Western support. The representative picked up the phone in our presence and dialed the American Romanian ambassador. After the greeting, he said:
“The Karolyi couple is standing next to me. You know them, don’t you? They settled in America. Andrea, their child, remained in Romania. One of the most important human rights is the reunification of broken families. Do we agree that they have the right for their daughter to leave Romania and travel to New York as soon as possible?”
Andrea was with my parents in Odorheiu Secuiesc at that time. The day after the phone call, the Securitate raced through their door. They were asked what they could do to help Andrea get her passport as soon as possible so she could travel to her parents. Five months after our dissident, we met again.
“In ‘Free America,’ people behaved as they did in Romania”
As I mentioned, we did not run out of offers. We visited a few locations, but until we decided which one to accept, we still had to sustain ourselves by doing something. Although the Hungarians abroad helped with this by housing us and even collecting money for us, Bela took on all the work that was there, just to get money. The most sympathetic offer came from Oklahoma. The owner of a magazine, who had a gym and great connections, offered to give Bela a job and an apartment at the university as an instructor, and we could both work in the gym.
We started all over again, but we soon realized that in ‘free America,’ people can behave just as they do in Romania. Our mentor tried to control our work just as the party did at home. Bela did not tolerate him having a say in our methods, just as Nicu did not allow Ceausescu to do so. That’s what we escaped. We longed for trust, for independence, not for people commanding us.
After a few months, another opportunity arrived from Houston. They offered to be part owners in a gym there. We accepted. Mary Lou Retton contacted us here in 1982. We worked with her for two years before she she won a gold medal in the all-around, the first American to do so, at the 1984 Olympics. Julianne McNamara chose us a year earlier, and won the uneven bars title in Los Angeles. American women’s gymnastics hadn’t really achieved results until then.
In the years of the Cold War, the Americans were far behind the Soviets, and looked only longingly at the successes of the East. Mary Lou’s historic first place was an amazing sensation. Sponsorships, commercials, and film roles followed the Olympics, generating millions of dollars in wealth for her, but we didn’t do badly ourselves.
Olympic success spread like wildfire across the country. It is no exaggeration to say that parents and their children stood in a line of hundreds of meters in front of the Houston gym. In America, the state does not sponsor sports, and everyone pays for everything themselves. Those we selected were told what the program would look like, which would cost $400 a month. This amount only covered our training between 7 and 11:30 in the morning and another two or three hours in the afternoon. Our expertise. All other costs placed an extra burden on parents. They had to deal with their child’s accommodation, feeding, schooling. For those who went to public school, we gave them their credits for physical education, so in return the schools set up their schedules so they could go to training in the morning.
After a while, we found a sponsor. Based on the gym’s huge popularity, we took out a bank loan, and after two years bought out the co-owners and we also bought the other half of our home in Houston. Here, for the first time in our lives, we became completely independent, putting together whatever program we wanted.
Putting every dollar at the forefront, we were able to repay the bank loan in a short time, and from the rest, Bela started buying land north of Houston. A little at first. Then scattered, but he added more and more pieces, always as much as we could from our savings. Eventually, a single area of about 800 hectares was formed, now known as the Karolyi Ranch. Bela had always dreamed of having his own property someday, one he would create and realize himself. There is a gym and a dormitory, as in Deva or Onesti, but it also has a swimming pool, a park, animals, everything that provides fun and relaxation in addition to rigorous training.
We took out a loan again for the investments, which we repaid up to the last cent. At first, I was upset because after we finished our two workouts a day in Houston, Bela would get in the car and go out to the estate. He worked day and night. In addition to organizing the plans for the property, he put in a lot of physical work.
Based on all this, it may seem that we quickly conquered America. But the American federation and professionals working in the U.S. found it equally difficult to understand our unusual, fitness-based, and, yes, rigorous preparation.
Although we introduced more and more talented children to the American national team, we often received criticism. Finally, 12 years after Mary Lou’s success, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Americans won historic gold in the team competition ahead of the Russians.
At age 55, we thought it was enough to finish the elite sport. We stopped at the top. While we were just exiting the system, Larry Nassar was appointed by USA Gymnastics as the leading physician for the gymnastics team.
The difference between Romanian and American central preparation
We sold our gym in Houston, upgraded the ranch, and went full in with our summer camp. This became our main activity, how we earned money. We contracted about 60 instructors, coaches, and employees during the summer holidays, bringing in around 250-300 children in weekly shifts, and a total of 2,000-2,500 children every summer.
Meanwhile, the performance of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team dropped significantly. Twice after finishing first in Atlanta, they finished fifth at world championships. In the fall of 1998, the president of the association came to the ranch and invited Bela to become the professional leader of the national team. He said he would take it, but only if he didn’t have to give up his privacy, camp, and work in the future according to a system we developed.
The world can’t even imagine the kind of work that goes into getting 5th, 15th, or even 32nd place at the Olympics. The workouts are built on each other from an early age. You work harder and harder, level by level, learning more and more difficult elements. If you stop at a level in training and focus on quality, you will get it. But we are human. Not everything goes smoothly.
Your dreams and goals expressed in elite sports will be taken to the point where you feel you are unable to move on every step of the day. This is where you need someone to be there behind you and make sure you are capable of it. Because if you dream, if you have a goal, you have to somehow push yourself through the deadlock.
Nadia Comaneci repeatedly stated, “If Bela asked me to do ten of the exercises, I did fifteen because I wanted to be the best.” The coach will show you the way to the maximum and help you through the dead ends, but without the overwhelming motivation from the athlete, even the best coach in the world is helpless.
To this day, I confess that you can only achieve results in a centralized way in a sport. We also proved this with our results in Romania between 1968 and 1980 and in America between 1982 and 1996. Those who came up through our method were more effective. However, the U.S. is a huge country. Therefore, when Bela took over the national team, we developed a special, semi-centralized program. Not like how we worked in Onesti or Deva, where the most talented children spent 350 days a year in a residential training camp, tearing them from their families. Completely different.
The best American gymnasts came to the Karolyi Ranch with their coach for five days each month, which the association rented from us for these periods. Each time we started the week with an overview [of how everyone looked], and from there the girls took part in joint workouts. They could see each other, they could follow how their competition looked. During these five days, we personally managed the program, participated in the girls’ trainings, and held professional training for their coaches who came with them. At the end of the fifth day, they were given a specific training plan for the next period.
One coach flew home to Boston, the other to New York, the third to Los Angeles, and they could continue working under this program at home. They were given a methodology that they could replicate themselves to some degree. We knew that the next camp would start again with a health check and test. It would soon be clear who had carried out the macrocycle with honor, and who had not. We told the latter with unwavering sincerity what was wrong, but we motivated the well-performing girls with medals and awards.
For the remaining three weeks of each month, we prepared our summer camps. After all, that was our main activity, our source of income. The Olympic team only meant active counseling with a personal presence of five days a month. That seemed like enough.
A year later, in Sydney, the American team won bronze. That’s when our method was finally adopted. However, even in this semi-free system, Bela had a hard time understanding the sports leaders and his colleagues. That’s why he got out of gymnastics after the Olympics. Since 2001, at the age of 59, I was entrusted with the management. Others were already thinking about retirement. In comparison, I went for another 16 years as the head of the national team. Even at 74, I led the team to Rio, where the American gymnasts were the best in the world, winning four golds, four silvers, and one bronze.
“We never forced anyone to do anything”
In fact, we formed a famously strong coaching pair, but I’ve already talked about why. Today, some say it is too strict. Perhaps the most interesting motive of our coaching career is that rigor has been able to function in a country with a completely different social and political system, in a dictatorship and in the homeland of democracy.
However, over the past ten years, a wave of sensitization has swept through developed democracies that completely reinterpreted what is free and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not permissible, where the limit is for coaches.
You don’t have to go back to the Romania of the seventies. It’s only been 25 years since the Atlanta Olympics team final. When Bela encouraged Kerri Strug, who had suffered an ankle ligament rupture after her first vault, with a suggestive look and the famous phrase “You can do it,” as a result Kerri ran, vaulted, stood up for the second time, then collapsed and slipped off the mat with a distorted face. It was considered a feat. After all, the American team defeated Russia for the first time thanks to this last vault. Thanks to Kerri’s training and pain tolerance, Team USA won historic gold.
25 years ago, the incident was celebrated by the American people as a triumph of willpower. Even Bill Clinton called Bela to see if he could borrow that phrase in his presidential campaign.
Nowadays, this is also criticized, misinterpreted. Some say it’s downright a sin, saying the coach, even at this crucial moment of Olympic gold, shouldn’t ask for it, let alone instruct his competitor to continue while injured.
It is worth clarifying, however: we have never forced anyone to do anything. Young American athletes and their parents have always trusted us with their own will, their own funding. They had a purpose and a dream. After Bela took Kerri to the podium in his arms and then lifted her to celebrate the Olympic hero with the Atlanta audience, she fulfilled millions of American sympathies, fulfilled the dreams of herself and her teammates, the girl with the gold medal around her neck.
“As a coach, as a mother, I deeply condemn what Larry Nassar did”
My mother raised me to give the best of my abilities. I worked in the spirit of Romania and the United States. We expected the same from others for success. But we were not standing in the room with a whip. Whoever didn’t like it wasn’t locked to us. The Karolyi Ranch is everything but the cellar prison of the Dracula castle in Törcsvar. Anyone could leave at any time.
I began each five-day camp with a presentation of the program ahead of the gymnasts and an inspirational speech, which I ended with, “Girls, the Olympics are the pinnacle. I say from experience, whoever wants to get there, wants to win a medal, gold at the Olympics, has to go through this program. Anyone who doesn’t like it because they feel unable to take it because it is too hard, don’t despair. You have other options where you can be fulfilled. Other programs in American gymnastics provide an opportunity for this. There are other levels. You can go through J.O. and to a university program. You can also be a successful, recognized gymnast this way.”
An athlete who ultimately fails to achieve their goal despite a million hours of sacrificial work is always looking for reasons. And in vain, despite our best intentions, it is often found in the training method, the coach.
The Larry Nassar affair shook not only America, but the whole world. As a coach, as a mother, I deeply condemn what he has done. As a result of his crime, we are also being sued. Certain gymnasts talked about the Karolyi Ranch in the documentaries on the Nassar situation, and in other statements they complained about the excessive harshness of the Karolyi method. They say the isolation and atmosphere of the Karolyi Ranch allowed Nassar to sexually abuse them for years because we were too strict. They were afraid of us, so the doctor was able to manipulate them.
Larry Nassar was not employed by us, but full-time by Michigan State University, as well as by USA Gymnastics. As the national team doctor, he was delegated to the Karolyi Ranch, where he appeared one or two times at the annual 12 five-day camps.
Documentaries made by HBO (At the Heart of Gold) and Netflix (Athlete A), and millions of articles published, silenced the fact that these were not our athletes. After 1996, we were not the coaches of any of the gymnasts who turned up at the Karolyi Ranch at the time Larry Nassar was employed by the American federation. We did not have a direct and intimate relationship with them as a classic coach-student relationship. The coach is the person who knows about all of the excitements, joys, and sorrows of their athletes, and the gymnast shares all of their problems with their coach.
I could have had fun with the last team, the “Final Five,” but I never did because none of them were my athletes. They did win team gold in Rio, thanks to four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles, to climbing to the top of their sport and reaching the peak of their careers, when I was head coach of the American women’s national team. I just wasn’t the one by their side for 365 days.
I’m not their coach. Simone came to the Karolyi Ranch with her own coach, Aimee Boorman, each time. She worked under Aimee’s supervision for those five days, and this is when she had contact with Larry Nassar. We only saw the little girl’s tremendous talent and supported her with our knowledge in training. I decided on the captain during the team selection, and trained Boorman. The girls and their coaches who turned up at the Karolyi Ranch were given the way to the top step of the Olympic podium thanks to us. Even tough it was difficult at times, we left it to them what they would do with it, and what they wouldn’t.
We consider the Romanian and American girls with whom we worked 350 days a year until 1996 to be our gymnasts. None of them criticized us, no one testified against us. Neither Nadia Comaneci, nor Mary Lou Retton, nor Kerri Strug, nor the others.
Article translated from the original by Lauren Hopkins